U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
BACKGROUND NOTES: SURINAME
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
Official Name: Republic of Suriname
Area: 163,265 sq. km. (63,037 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Georgia.
Cities: Capital--Paramaribo (pop. 180,000). Other towns--Nieuw
Terrain: Varies from coastal swamps to savanna to hills.
Nationality: Noun--Surinamer(s). Adjective--Surinamese.
Population (1992): 438,000.
Annual growth rate (1992): 1%.
Ethnic groups: Hindustani (East Indian) 37%, Creole 31%, Javanese 15%,
Bush Negro 10%, Amerindians 3%, Chinese 1.7% (percentages date from 1972
census, the last in which ethnicity data was collected).
Religions: Hindu, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Moravian and
several other Christian groups, Jewish, Baha'i.
Languages: Dutch (official), English, Sranan Tongo (Creole language),
Education: Compulsory--ages 6-12. Literacy--90%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (1991)--38/1,000. Life expectancy
Work Force (100,000): Government--49%. Private sector--35%.
Type: Constitutional democracy.
Constitution: September 1987.
Independence: November 25, 1975.
Branches: Executive--president, vice president, Council of Ministers.
Legislative--elected 51-member National Assembly made up of
representatives of political parties. Judicial--Court of Justice.
Administrative subdivisions: 10 districts.
Political Parties: Ruling Coalition--The New Front Coalition (NFC):
National Party of Suriname (NPS), Indonesian Peasant's Party (KPTI),
Suriname Labor Party (SPA), and Progressive Reform Party (VHP). Other
parties in National Assembly--Alternative Forum (AF), Reformed
Progressive, Party for Brotherhood and Unity in Politics (HPP),
Pendawalima, Independent Progressive Group (BEP), New Democratic Party
(NDP), Democratic Party (DP).
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP: $545 million.
Annual growth rate: -2.4%.
Per capita GDP: $1,200.
Natural resources: Bauxite, gold, iron ore, and other minerals;
forests; hydroelectric potential; fish and shrimp.
Agriculture: Products--rice, palm oil, bananas, timber, and citrus
Industry: Types--aluminum, alumina, processed food, lumber, bricks,
tiles, cigarettes, and glass.
Trade: Exports--$105 million: bauxite, alumina, aluminum, wood and
wood products, rice, bananas, and shrimp. Major markets--U.S.,
Netherlands, EU, and other European countries. Imports--$105 million:
capital equipment, petroleum, iron and steel products, agricultural
products, and consumer goods. Major suppliers--U.S., Netherlands, EU,
Brazil, Caribbean countries.
Exchange rate: 400 guilders=U.S. $1.
Most Surinamers live in the narrow, northern coastal plain. The
population is one of the most ethnically varied in the world. Each
ethnic group preserves its own culture, and many other institutions,
including political parties, tend to follow ethnic lines. Informal
relationships vary--the upper classes of all ethnic groups mix freely;
outside of the elite, social relations tend to remain within ethnic
groupings. All groups may be found in the schools and workplace.
Arawak and Carib tribes lived in the region before Columbus sighted the
coast in 1498. Although Spain officially claimed the area in 1593, the
Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the 16th century gave the area
little attention: Gold had not yet been discovered there, and
transportation was difficult. Dutch settlement began in 1616 at the
mouths of several rivers between present-day Georgetown, Guyana, and
Cayenne, French Guiana.
Suriname became a Dutch colony in 1667. The new colony--Dutch Guiana--
did not thrive. Historians cite several reasons for this, including
Holland's preoccupation with its more extensive (and profitable) East
Indian territories, violent conflict between whites and native tribes,
and frequent uprisings by the slave population, which was often treated
with extraordinary cruelty. Barely, if at all, assimilated into Western
society, many of the slaves fled to the interior, where they resumed a
West African culture and established the five major Bush Negro tribes in
existence today: the Djuka, Saramaccaner, Matuwari, Paramaccaner, and
Plantation farming steadily declined in importance as labor costs rose.
Rice, bananas, and citrus fruits replaced the traditional crops of
sugar, coffee, and cocoa. Exports of gold rose notably, however,
beginning in 1900. The Dutch Government gave little financial support
to the colony.
Suriname's economy was transformed in the years following World War I,
when an American firm (Alcoa) began exploiting bauxite deposits in East
Suriname. Bauxite processing and then alumina production began in 1941.
This was of considerable importance during World War II, when over 75%
of U.S. bauxite imports came from Suriname. The U.S. stationed troops
there during the war.
Beginning in 1951, Suriname began to acquire an increasing measure of
autonomy from the Netherlands. On December 15, 1954, Suriname became an
autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and gained
independence on November 25, 1975.
Most of Suriname's political parties took shape during the autonomy
period and were overwhelmingly based on ethnicity. For example, the
Nationale Partij Suriname (NPS) found its support among the Creoles, the
Veruitstrevended Hervormd Partij (VHP) gained its backers from the
Hindustani population, and the Indonesian Peasant's Party (or KTPI in
Javanese) was based upon the Javanese group. Other, smaller parties
found limited support by appealing to the voters on a more strictly
ideological or pro-independence line; the Partij Nationalistische
Republiek (PNR) was among the most important. Its members pressed most
strongly for independence and for the introduction of leftist political
and economic measures. Many former PNR members would go on to play a
key role following the post-independence coup of February 1980.
Independence, "Revolution," And Democracy
Suriname was a working parliamentary democracy in the years immediately
following independence, when Henk Arron became the first Prime Minister
and was reelected in 1977. On February 25, 1980, the elected government
was overthrown by 16 noncommissioned officers. The military-dominated
government then suspended the constitution, dissolved the legislature in
August, and formed a regime which ruled by decree. Although a civilian
filled the post of president, a military man, Desi Bouterse, actually
ruled the country.
Throughout 1982, pressure grew for a return to civilian rule. To end
this threat, the military ordered drastic action. Early in December
1982, the military authorities arrested and killed 15 prominent
opposition leaders, including journalists, lawyers, and trade union
Following the murders, the United States and the Netherlands suspended
all economic and military cooperation with the Bouterse regime, which
increasingly began to follow an erratic but generally leftist-oriented
political course. Economic decline rapidly set in after the suspension
of economic aid from the Netherlands. The regime also restricted the
press and limited the rights of its citizens.
The continued economic decline brought pressure for change. During the
1984-87 period, the regime attempted to end the crisis through a
succession of nominally civilian-led cabinets. Many figures in the
government came from the traditional political parties which had, in
effect, been shoved aside during the coup. The military eventually
agreed to free elections in 1987, a new constitution, and a civilian
government. Ramsewak Shankar was elected President, and Henk Arron was
elected Vice President.
Another pressure for change had erupted in July 1986, when the Maroon or
Bush Negro insurgency, led by former soldier Ronnie Brunswijk, began
attacking economic targets in the country's interior. In response, the
army ravaged villages and killed suspected Brunswijk supporters.
Thousands of Bush Negroes fled to nearby French Guiana. In an effort to
end the bloodshed, the Surinamese Government negotiated a peace treaty,
called the Kourou accord, with Brunswijk in 1989. Commander Bouterse
and other military leaders did not support this accord and blocked its
On December 24, 1990, military officers forced the resignations of the
President and Vice President elected in 1987. Military-selected
replacements were hastily approved by the National Assembly on December
29. Faced with mounting pressure from the U.S. and other nations and
international organizations, however, the government held new elections
on May 25, 1991. The New Front Coalition, comprised of the National
Party of Suriname (NPS), the Progressive Reform Party (VHP), the
Indonesian Peasant's Party (KTPI), and the Surinamese Labor Party (SPA),
were able to win a majority. The New Front Coalition and another pro-
democracy coalition, the Democratic Alternative '91 (which won 9 seats),
also controlled more than the two-thirds majority in the National
Assembly required to elect Suriname's next president.
On September 6, 1991, the People's Assembly, consisting of the National
Assembly plus other elected representatives of districts and
subdistricts, elected President Runaldo Ronald Venetiaan and Vice
President Jules Ajodhia to five-year terms in office. The government
was able to effect a settlement to Suriname's domestic insurgency as a
result of the August 1992 peace accord with Bush Negro and Amerindian
In April 1993, Desi Bouterse was replaced as Commander of the Armed
Forces by Arthy Gorre, a military officer committed to bringing the
armed forces under the control of the democratically elected government.
Despite these successes, public opinion polls conducted in August 1994
indicated that the New Front Coalition was losing support, at least in
part because of the weak performance of the economy.
The Republic of Suriname is a constitutional democracy based on the 1987
constitution. The legislative branch of government consists of a 51-
member unicameral National Assembly, popularly elected for a five-year
term. The next election is in May 1996 for the entire Assembly.
The executive branch is headed by the president, who is elected by a
two-thirds majority of the National Assembly for a five-year term. If
the National Assembly cannot get two-thirds of its members to vote for
one candidate, a People's Assembly is formed from all assembly
delegates, regional and municipal representatives of the population who
have been elected by popular vote. A simple majority of this group may
also elect the president in lieu of the National Assembly. A vice
president, normally elected at the same time as the president, needs
only a simple majority in the National Assembly to be elected for a
five-year term. As head of the government, the president has a 16-
minister cabinet that he appoints. There is no constitutional provision
for removal or replacement of the president unless he resigns.
A State Advisory Council of 14 members advises the president in the
conduct of policy. Eleven of the 14 seats are allotted by proportional
representation of all political parties represented in the National
Assembly. The vice president chairs the council and three
representatives of workers and employers organizations hold the rest of
The judiciary is headed by the Court of Justice (Supreme Court). This
court supervises the magistrate courts. Members are appointed for life
by the president in consultation with the National Assembly, the State
Advisory Council and the National Order of Private Attorneys.
The republic is divided into 10 administrative districts headed by a
district commissioner appointed by the president. The commissioner is
similar to the governor of a U.S. state but serves at the president's
Surinamese armed forces consist of the national army under the control
of Commander Arthy Gorre and Defense Minister Siegfried Gilds and a much
smaller civil police force which is responsible to the minister of
justice. The national armed forces comprise some 2,500 personnel, the
majority of whom are deployed as light infantry security forces. A
small air force and navy/coast guard also exist. The Netherlands has
provided limited military assistance to the Surinamese armed forces
since the election of a democratic government in 1991. Suriname is
pursuing regional military cooperation through bilateral agreements and
exercises with Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana, Curacao, and
Principal Government Officials
President--Runaldo Ronald Venetiaan
Vice President--Jules Ajodhia
Foreign Minister--Subhas Mungra
Ambassador to U.S. and OAS--Willem A. Udenhout
Ambassador to UN--Kriesnadath Nandoe
Suriname maintains an embassy in the United States at 4301 Connecticut
Ave, NW, Suite 108, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-244-7488). There is
a consulate general at 7235 NW 19th St., Suite A, Miami, Fl 33136 (tel.
The backbone of Suriname's economy is the export of alumina and small
amounts of aluminum produced from bauxite mined in the country. Alumina
and aluminum exports account for about 85% of Suriname's export
earnings. Suriname's bauxite deposits have been among the world's
richest--although greater amounts of shale must be removed than at
deposits in Guinea and Australia.
Mining sites at Moengo and Paranam are estimated to have bauxite
reserves for another 10 to 15 years. All bauxite mined in Suriname is
brought via navigable rivers and the Atlantic to the Suriname Aluminum
Company's (SURALCO) alumina refinery and aluminum smelter in Paranam.
In 1984, SURALCO, a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America
(ALCOA), entered into a joint venture with the Royal Dutch Shell-owned
Billiton Company, which did not process the bauxite it mined. Under
this agreement, they share risks and profits.
Inexpensive power costs are Suriname's big advantage in the energy-
intensive alumina and aluminum business. Alcoa built a $150-million dam
for the production of hydroelectric energy at Afobaka (south of
Brokopondo), which created a 1,550-square kilometer (600 sq. mi.) lake,
one of the largest artificial lakes in the world.
Suriname also is an exporter of rice, shrimp, timber, bananas, fruits,
and vegetables. It formerly exported palm oil. All of these exports
declined in 1989, due to lack of competitiveness of Suriname's products
and also to insurgencies in the interior, which effectively closed
access to timber and to most palm oil plantations. Deteriorating
infrastructure and lack of spare parts are additional constraints
worsened by a skewed exchange rate.
At independence, Suriname signed an agreement with the Netherlands
providing for about $1.5 billion in development assistance grants and
loans over a 10- to 15-year period. Dutch assistance allocated to
Suriname thus amounted to about $100 million per year. Dutch
transitional aid ended in February 1990. To date, Suriname has had
access to only a fraction of Dutch aid because of Dutch insistence that
Suriname undertake structural economic reforms and produce specific
plans acceptable to the Dutch for projects on which aid funds could be
Despite the lack of Dutch balance-of-payments support, Suriname has been
able to embark on development projects in the areas of petroleum
production expansion and a mini-refinery project for Staatsolie, the
state-owned oil company. In addition, Suriname has attracted
investments by international companies in the areas of gold exploration
and exploitation (Golden Star Resources) as well as in the tropical
hardwoods industry (MUSA, Berjaja). Exploitation of the country's
tropical forests has raised environmental concerns both in Suriname and
In the 1980s, as Suriname's economic situation deteriorated due to the
cutoff of Dutch development aid, the government instituted a regime of
stringent economic controls over prices, the exchange rate, imports, and
exports. The policy resulted in a reduction of activity in the
officially controlled market. Meanwhile, the tolerated black market
grew considerably, at one point accounting for an estimated 85% of all
imports. The New Front Coalition began to move toward a comprehensive
structural adjustment program (SAP) in 1991.
Progress has been slow, but the government has eliminated some licensing
requirements and, in 1993, allowed currency to be exchanged on a
legalized free market comprising banks and exchanges. In July 1994, the
government took another step toward economic adjustment by unifying the
multiple exchange rates applicable in various sectors of the economy at
the rate of 180 guilders per U.S. dollar, and resolved to phase out
expensive government subsidies on gasoline and a number of consumer
The government's inability to bring its sizeable deficit under control,
and its expansionary financing of the deficit through money creation,
led to a rapid increase in inflation (to about 300% in 1993) and a
dramatic fall in the parallel market value of the Surinamese guilder
(from an official rate of 1.78 guilder per U.S. dollar in 1991 to 400
guilders per U.S. dollar in November 1994).
Vestiges of the economic policies of the 1980s remain in the form of
price controls and subsidies and the existence of numerous parastatal
companies in nearly every economic sector. By 1994, about half of the
work force was still directly or indirectly on the government payroll.
Since gaining independence, Suriname has become a member of the United
Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Non-Aligned
Movement. In 1994, Suriname began to participate in the Caribbean
Community and Common Market (CARICOM) on political issues and became a
member of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS); it is associated
with the European Union through the Lome Convention. Suriname
participates in activities of both the Andean and Amazonian Pact
countries and, reflecting its status as a major bauxite producer, is a
member of the International Bauxite Association. The country also
belongs to the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), the Inter-
American Development Bank (IDB), the International Finance Corporation
(IFC), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
President Venetiaan's government is trying to raise Suriname's profile
in the international community and especially within the region. State
visits to countries in and outside of the region have contributed to
this effort, as have Suriname's recent charter membership in the ACS and
associate membership in CARICOM on political issues. Bilateral
agreements with several of these countries, covering diverse areas of
cooperation, have further underscored the government's determination to
strengthen its regional ties. The return to Suriname from French Guiana
of about 8,000 refugees from the 1986-91 civil war between the military
and domestic insurgents has improved relations with French authorities.
Long-standing border disputes with Guyana and French Guiana remain
unresolved but have not negatively affected relations with either
country. An earlier dispute with Brazil ended amicably after formal
demarcation of the border.
Since the re-establishment of a democratic government, the United States
has maintained positive and mutually beneficial relations with Suriname
based on the principles of democracy, respect for human rights, rule of
law, and civilian authority over the military. Cooperation with the
Suriname Government in the area of anti-narcotics activities has
increased, and Suriname's efforts to liberalize economic policy have
created new possibilities for U.S. investments. Suriname strongly
backed efforts by the United States to implement UN Security Resolution
940 designed to facilitate the departure of Haiti's de facto authorities
from power. Suriname agreed to the construction of a safehaven for
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Roger R. Gamble
Deputy Chief of Mission--Ruth M. Van Heuven
Defense Attache--Lt. Col. Leocadio Muniz, U.S. Army
Political Officer--Daniel F. Christiansen
Economic/Commercial Officer--Kathleen A. Morenski
Consular Officer--David Renz
Political Regional Affairs Officer--Robert V. Matthews
The U.S. embassy in Paramaribo is located at Dr. Sophie Redmondstraat
129, P.O. Box 1821, Paramaribo, Suriname (tel. 472900, 476459; FAX 597-
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